Varsha looks normal. She has hands, feet, flesh and blood. Her bright green sari is nice. But no matter how she looks, she is filthy, because a 3,000-year-old social hierarchy says so. Varsha was born into the lowest rank of the Hindu caste system. She has many names – untouchable, Dalit (a word invented to replace “untouchable”), manual scavenger – but her essential identity remains the same. She must spend her life cleaning up the shit of her betters. Even her shadow is polluting.
There are still 1 million manual scavengers in India, though the job was outlawed in 1993.
Every day, Varsha does the following: She walks to the dry latrines – sometimes nothing more than two bricks on the ground – used by the five families who employ her. There she scoops the shit with a piece of tin, loads it into a cracked bowl, and carries it away on her head. The shit drips every day, but the monsoon makes things worse; then, worms multiply. For this, she gets 1,500 rupees (US$32) per year from each family, though sometimes she is paid in stale food. She can’t wash herself at the well until higher-caste women have finished; she is not permitted to enter a temple to pray for escape. If she is thirsty, she will be served water poured into her hands from a cup, as her touch will contaminate glass.
There are still 1 million manual scavengers in India, though the job was outlawed in 1993. Anti-scavenging campaigners employ different tactics. Some provide scavengers with alternative employment. Some demolish dry latrines. Sulabh International, an Indian phenomenon, prefers to build toilets. Its low-cost Easy Latrine, designed to replace dry latrines, has been sold to 1 million customers. It has liberated 6,000 manual scavengers. Most Indians know Sulabh for its 4,000 pay toilets that serve 6 million people a day. Foreigners will know it if they have a guidebook that directs them to the organization’s headquarters near Delhi’s international airport, and the International Museum of Toilets.
Sulabh’s founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, is an unconventional man. Born a high-caste Brahmin, he was not supposed to touch scavengers, so he moved in with some. (His grandmother made him drink cow urine to cleanse himself.) He set up pay toilets though everyone said Indians wouldn’t pay (but they do). In 1994, he decided to “make toilets interesting,” and set up the museum. The displays include a replica of French king Louis XIII’s toilet and a French commode disguised as English books. Objects were sourced partly by sending requests for information about foreign toilet culture to every embassy in Delhi. Some were helpful, some less so. The US Embassy sent a letter recommending Pathak contact the American Society of Sanitary Engineering, and a suggestion: “The idea of playing the national anthem of various nations as one approaches their toilet in the exhibit strikes me as something many people might object to. A simple sign explaining the exhibit may be less controversial.”
If you clean a latrine, you will have many names: sweeper (as you use a brush); manual scavenger (as you use your hands); bhangi (a word meaning “broken”); and untouchable (because you are).
Take the shit to the village dump on your head. There are still up to 10 million dry latrines in India so at least you have job security.
Manual scavenging is illegal in every Indian state, and people who use manual scavengers can get a year’s imprisonment. In practice, even local high courts use scavengers.
You will probably be turned away from the washing place for being polluting. But every day, at least three Dalit girls and women are raped. Untouchability is relative.